Let’s make Texas the ‘third coast’ for biotech

Photo by UT Southwestern Medical Center

Texas has made a name for itself in biotech by supporting premier academic medical centers, attracting research funding and welcoming investment by major pharmaceutical companies. Now it is time to take the next step with a smart state investment in biomedical research, paving the way for Texas to become a major hub in the vibrant biotechnology industry.

By building on its business-friendly foundation, Texas has the potential to compete vigorously with Boston and San Francisco, cities where the industry is largely concentrated near major research universities. Our citizens have everything to gain if we invest state funds in a way that will allow Texas to become the “third coast” for biotech.

Texas already has made a good start. Low taxes and an abundant workforce make the state an economic powerhouse.  Although our cities are not yet ranked among the nation’s top biotech clusters, Texas is home to approximately 4,000 life science firms and nearly 100,000 biotech workers. More than 300,000 additional jobs are directly or indirectly supported by these efforts.

Our state boasts the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where cutting-edge research is leading to novel treatments for deadly diseases. These include immunotherapy drugs to fight cancer at MD Anderson, where immunologist James Allison was recently honored with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and gene-editing techniques at UT Southwestern that hold the promise of a cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Last year, Texas ranked seventh in the nation for research funding from the National Institutes of Health, garnering $1.16 billion in federal investment — a catalyst for biotech startups that tend to cluster in the shadow of academic medical centers where major discoveries are made.

Major pharmaceutical companies are taking notice.

In Houston, Johnson & Johnson has established its biggest JLabs facility in the United States, an incubator with laboratories and office space designed to nurture startups near the world-renowned Texas Medical Center. Nearby, medical center officials have unveiled ambitious plans for a 30-acre research campus to be known as TMC3, where researchers from Baylor College of Medicine, MD Anderson, Texas A&M Health Science Center and UT Health Science Center can collaborate and attract commercial partners.

In Dallas, Pfizer is funding research by Dr. Bruce Beutler, a Nobel Prize-winning immunologist at UT Southwestern, who is searching for the genes underlying cancer and metabolic diseases.

And in Austin, more than 200 life science firms have joined the city’s thriving technology scene.

Unfortunately, budget pressures in Washington jeopardize the reliability of federal funding for scientific research, making state support more critical than ever. To compete with other states for talent and grants, state seed funding targeted to biomedical research will be pivotal to leverage our strengths, secure external research dollars and speed innovation.

Past investments in biomedical research have paid off handsomely.

Academic medical centers have become major employers in our biggest cities, generating economic activity that returns net tax revenue to the state. In San Antonio, one of every six workers is employed in the city’s flourishing bioscience and healthcare sector, anchored by UT Health San Antonio, where the Department of Defense has funded research into treating PTSD among war veterans. Employment in biotech research and development in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex jumped by 34 percent between 2010 and 2016. The Houston area lost biotech R&D jobs during that time period but welcomed an increase in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing jobs.

Texas provides significant support for its 39 general academic research universities. Making a similar commitment to biomedical research at our public medical schools would solidify the state backing that is essential to the scientific process, providing seed money for academic medical centers to afford specialized equipment and other resources needed to land bigger grants.

For example, at UT Southwestern, the state has seen a 9-to-1 return on every research dollar invested through grant monies secured from out-of-state sources — a direct infusion for the Texas economy.

Commercializing discoveries made at our biomedical research universities and building a high-powered Texas biotech industry will benefit our state. A more dynamic biotech sector will further diversify our economy with high-paying jobs — the average bioscience worker in the United States makes about $95,000 a year — and help recruit new talent to help Texas keep pace in the 21st century. Our residents will gain access to more patient-care advances coming out of laboratories and hospitals, improving our state’s overall health.

Texas has a long history of embracing new industries, from the invention of the integrated circuit to the sprawling wind farms in West Texas. Biotechnology offers a new frontier for improving the health of our people and taking the state’s economy in an exciting new direction. Texas should embrace this opportunity and increase its support of biomedical research to make our state biotech’s “third coast.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the UT Southwestern Medical Center, and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Glenn Hegar

Comptroller of Texas